Politics never really stopped at the water’s edge

By James Gibney - Contributing columnist

Democrats and Republicans still agree on the need for the U.S. to engage with the world, according to a new survey; they just increasingly disagree about how to do it. But U.S. history suggests that sharp partisan divisions in foreign policy aren’t as unusual as people assume — or as much of a problem.

Majorities in both parties favor an active U.S. role in world affairs, according to a new poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and they mostly agree on top goals and threats. Yet voters diverge on the way to meet those challenges. Republicans emphasize military force; Democrats favor diplomacy. Moreover, the gap on immigration, climate change and Israel has widened.

The diplomatic set is particularly quick to bemoan the impact that political polarization, which has infected so much of public life, has on U.S. foreign policy. But there are two good reasons not to get too exercised about the fracture highlighted in the report.

First, not only is the much-celebrated partisan comity of the 1940s to the 1960s exaggerated; it also represented a generational blip — kind of like those postwar Pax Americana jobs with generous pensions and health insurance. Second, political polarization in the U.S. is less important to foreign policy than the struggle between the U.S. legislative and executive branches.

Start with the history. For many a foreign policy wonk, the Cold War was the golden era of bipartisanship; its patron saint, Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, famously proclaimed that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” (In my days as a State Department and White House speechwriter in the Clinton administration, we invoked Vandenberg so often that he should have been an F1 key.)

Vandenberg’s 1945 conversion from isolationism to internationalism may have paved the way for the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it didn’t end bitter partisan battles, from Sen. Joseph McCarthy savaging the Truman administration and the “who lost China” debate to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s attacks on the Eisenhower administration over the so-called Missile Gap.

Moreover, there was plenty of partisanship in foreign policy before the war. In 1928, Franklin Roosevelt, soon to become Democratic governor of New York, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs denouncing Warren Harding’s foreign policy for the “caution and smallness of the President’s mind and the provinciality and ignorance of most of his professional political advisers.” Roosevelt argued that after eight subsequent “barren” years of Republican leadership, “the outside world almost unanimously views us with less good will today than at any previous period.”

Roosevelt’s chief differences with Republican policies mirrored, in two important respects, the differences between Democrats and Republicans shown in the Chicago Council’s study: the GOP’s aversion to multilateralism, and its preference for military force — in this case, sending U.S. Marines to Latin America as debt collectors.

You can see that divergence in the 1928 election party platforms, with the Democrats pledging “non-interference” in Latin America, and “restoration” of the U.S. as a leader in building international institutions. And I’m sure most of today’s Republican candidates for president would echo Harding’s 1921 inaugural speech, when he said America “can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority.”

Not only is there ideological continuity, but a more granular look at polarization over time suggests the U.S. is experiencing just a more severe recrudescence of earlier conditions. The period surrounding the Second World War was more exception than norm — in fact, levels of political polarization in the 1920s were similar to those in the 1980s and ’90s.

A study last year found that in the 1970s, “foreign policy voting was increasingly more partisan than domestic policy voting,” a pattern that eased and then reasserted itself again during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

If polarization is the norm, one implication is not to worry about it so much. After all, despite lockstep Republican opposition, Obama got his Iran deal done. Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy points out that Obama also succeeded this year in opening up to Cuba, signing a climate deal with China and winning Trade Promotion Authority (the last with Republican support).

Moreover, even in our more polarized era, congressional bipartisanship on foreign policy isn’t dead: As Jordan Tama of American University has noted, Democrats joined Republicans to impose stiff sanctions on Iran and on Russia through the Magnitsky Act, block the shutdown of Guantanamo, restrict U.S. government surveillance policies, and shape the defense budget — mostly against Obama’s wishes. Such bipartisanship is especially likely to break out when it comes to defending, or expanding, the legislative branch’s role in foreign policy: Witness the 98-1 vote giving Congress a say in the Iran deal.

Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone pining for those bipartisan days of yore. In foreign policy terms, at least, today’s polarization isn’t necessarily the problem it’s made out to be.


By James Gibney

Contributing columnist

James Gibney is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

James Gibney is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.